Few rulers can match the House of Saud’s strategy for quelling discontent. They simply lack the funds for it. When King Salman came to the throne in January, he initiated a public giveaway that will ultimately total more than £21bn. Public sector workers received two months’ salary as a bonus; literary and sports clubs were blessed with plentiful grants. The last time Saudi citizens were shown such largesse coincided with the 2011 Arab uprisings, and its effect this time seems likely to be much the same as ever: a lull in the airing of grievances about rights and political freedoms.
One subject, however, has little reason to thank the King. It is now a year since Raif Badawi, a blogger, was first incarcerated. The public floggings – handed down as part of a 10-year sentence for insulting Islam – have stopped, at least for now, but hopes that Mr Badawi would be released by a new ruler courting international opinion have proven over-optimistic. The clerical establishment that holds such sway would not look kindly on any show of lenience to a man whose crime was to write – often beautifully, sometimes scathingly – on the benefits of a secular outlook and the separation of Church and State.
With Saudi Arabia an ally in the fight against Isis, a valued purchaser of arms and vendor of oil, neither Britain nor America has applied much pressure in Mr Badawi’s case. Amnesty International claims the British ambassador has not followed up on it, and in January Chris Grayling’s Ministry of Justice was revealed to be offering commercial services to the Saudi justice system – the very same that keeps Mr Badawi in prison, besides beheading dozens of inmates per year. This is beyond the pale. If the West cannot find its voice in support of Mr Badawi, it will have prized an alliance with a regime in part responsible for the spread of jihadism over the plight of peaceful, liberal activists. In both moral and political terms, that calculation is profoundly incorrect.Reuse content